Okay, if you read this blog you must know how I feel about Edgar Rice Burroughs—my muse, the author whose works inspired me to start writing back at the dawn of time. So do I have an opinion about John Carter, the 2012 overhyped movie named for ERB’s second most renowned fictional creation, after Tarzan? Well, duh…
When I say “overhyped,” I’m not knocking the movie, just the fact for at least a couple of months before it premiered in March, there were enough TV ads for John Carter to elevate its initial budget up around a quarter of a billion dollars. Yes, that’s billion with a “B.” So within a month or less the critics were already calling it a box-office bomb, to the point where it even cost a Disney exec involved with the project his job. Seems to me a quarter-of-a-billion dollar outlay would be hard to recover for ANY movie. But whatever. If I’m reading the IMDB box-office info clearly, John Carter might be approaching something closer to break-even, and that’s not counting DVD sales, which have only just begun this month.
That said, as an ERB fan I’d rather judge the film on its content rather than the money it did or didn’t make. The inspiration for John Carter apparently came from bits and pieces of his first three Barsoom books (there were eleven), A Princess of Mars, The Gods of Mars, and The Warlord of Mars. But did the screenwriters stick closely to the storylines of these novels? As they say in my native New York City—fuggedaboudit.
So if I’m a Burroughs purist, shouldn’t I be ticked off about that? Actually, no. With rare exceptions, a movie never follows the storyline of a book anywhere near verbatim. That’s why I have no intention of presenting a whiny laundry list of all the differences between the two elements, which first of all would take forever, and second, would bore you to death. To use the contemporary cliché, John Carter is what it is, and for two hours (and twelve minutes) it was a fun escape into a fantasy world that, in my opinion, we get far too few of at present on the silver screen.
The movie is a CGI-fest; what isn’t these days? But if you’ve read the books you know how hard it would have been to effectively portray twelve-foot, multi-limbed green Tharks, or calots, or banths, or thoats, or even John Carter himself hopping about in the lighter gravity without the current technology. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the cheesy, so-called “special effects” in the 1970s movies based on other ERB classics, namely The Land that Time Forgot, The People that Time Forgot, and At the Earth’s Core. Knowing the Mars books so well, I welcomed the CGI-fest in portraying Barsoom. And these days, movie-goers expect little else.
For those who don’t know the bare bones of the story, John Carter is a Civil War veteran from Virginia who, shortly after the war, is transported to Barsoom from a cave in Arizona. He adapts well to the culture, becomes immersed in the politics, wars, and various intrigues of Barsoom’s diverse inhabitants, and—perhaps most important—meets and falls in love with Dejah Thoris, a princess of Helium, and—what else?—the most incredible woman in two worlds.
Here is where I do have to mention one key difference between the books and the movie. In the past you’ve heard me comment on my early works being imitative of Burroughs, and to all intent and purpose, they were.
Except for one thing.
ERB wrote A Princess of Mars in 1911, and John Carter’s story begins in 1866. At the time, obviously, a different image of women prevailed, and this showed in ERB’s portrayal of them, not only in the Barsoom series but also in many other works. Women needed to be sheltered, protected. The man did the sword fighting or whatever, while the woman cowered behind him. In one scene (in the books) Carter crosses swords with a potload of bad guys as Dejah Thoris, standing unarmed behind him, sings a Helium battle song or something for a while, then falls silent (she’s been captured, but Carter doesn’t even know this, as he doesn’t turn around for a long time). Though indicative of the times, I often gagged on stuff like this.
Even in my earliest works, the women are capable of kicking as much butt as the guys, and they’re usually side by side, or back to back, fighting whatever evil is coming down the pike. I’m currently rewriting my Ro-lan novels, which were first published in the eighties—a decade in which women were well on their way to being able to take care of themselves. Okay, in keeping with the “lost worlds” genre I made Larra, my main female protagonist, capable of kicking some serious ass, and Ro-lan loves her all the more for it.
This is why I wondered how Dejah Thoris would be handled in the movie, since I knew that the writers retained the general timeline of the books. After all, a twenty-first century audience would not stand for a wimpy woman. Not to worry; to begin with, Dejah (a knockout Lynn Collins) is a scientist, an incredibly intelligent, strong-willed woman. And when she first meets Carter (a hunky Taylor Kitsch), who saves her from a fall off a Zodangan flying machine, he gets into a fight with the Zodangans, telling Dejah, “Stand behind me, this might get dangerous.” In the battle he loses his sword, Dejah picks it up and take out the rest of the bad guys, which prompts Carter to say, “Maybe I ought to get behind you.” This had to be an affectionate poke at Burroughs, and I loved it. Even more so when Dejah, as she wipes the blood off the sword with his clothes, adds, “You let me know when it gets dangerous.”
In any case, I fear that a sequel may not be coming, and it all boils down to money. But, I can hope. John Carter is not Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom books, nor does it pretend to be. It is a fun, stand-alone flick that I highly recommend—and I’m not even putting it in the “guilty pleasures” category. Enjoy!
SWORDS & SPECTERS: My second (seriously rewritten) Ro-lan novel, The Shrouded Walls of Kharith, will be published by or before the end of the month. I’m just beginning revisions on the third book in the series, tentatively renamed, The Sorcerer of Mesharra. July or August for that one.